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A Balloon-Filled Celebration of Teachers

by Chris Grabenstein

Photo credit: Digital Vision, DigitalVision/Getty Images

Back in 1968, Mrs. June P. Garret was the teacher who changed my life. More recently, she was also the inspiration for my newest Lemoncello story, Mr. Lemoncello’s Very First Game.

Mrs. Garret was my seventh-grade English teacher at Signal Mountain Junior High School outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was also the faculty advisor for the school newspaper.

Now when I was in seventh grade, my father wanted me to play sports. Football, basketball, baseball – something with a ball involved. Unfortunately, I did not have any of what might be called “athletic talent.”

In fact, I was so bad at sports that in elementary school, I could strike out playing kickball – the game where the other team rolls the ball straight at your kicking foot. I’d do three “swing-and-a-misses” and go back to warming the bench at recess.

But I wanted to make my father happy, if not proud. So, I signed up for the junior high school football team. I even took his old jersey number, 11.

Here is a yearbook picture of me on that 7th-grade team. And yes, I look terrified to be there.

Meanwhile, having read MAD Magazine and devoured Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons for several years, I was starting to be funny. In class. On the playground. On paper.

In seventh grade, I landed a spot on the junior high school newspaper. I even created a parody advice column called “Dear Gertrude.” Mrs. Garrett was the one who encouraged my wacky writing.

Here is the yearbook photo of me on the newspaper staff.

It is a tale of two faces.

Misery and Joy.

Thanks to Mrs. Garrett, I’d found what I was good at. I’d found my happy place.

One day, while grading a homework assignment, Mrs. Garrett took her red pen and scribbled in the margins of my paper this short but unbelievably encouraging note: “You will make your living as a writer someday.”

From that point on, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. In fact, in 8th grade, when it came time to write that perennial “What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?” essay, I no longer wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer (which is what my four brothers all became). Instead, inspired by Mrs. Garrett’s encouragement the year before, I wrote these words:

Now my mind wanders to a new thought. To be a comedian or a writer is my quest. If this flops, I would be content to be a millionaire and run Grabenstein’s Department Stores if I could ever fit the name on a sign.

I got a B+ on that paper, and my path in life was set. All thanks to Mrs. Garrett.

When I speak to school groups, I love talking about all the teachers and mentors who pointed me in the right direction. That got me thinking about what Luigi Lemoncello might’ve been like when he was 13, the age I was when Mrs. Garrett gave me my needed nudge. (I quit playing football in 8th grade and focused the rest of my school years on writing and acting in plays!)

I went back to the summer of 1968 when Luigi would also turn 13. That’s when he meets his mentor, Professor Marvelmous, the balloon pop booth operator at the summer carnival that rolls into town for a week.

Marvelmous recognizes Luigi’s unique gifts and talents, takes him under his wing, and helps him gain the confidence he’ll need to grow up to become the world-renown game maker and showman, Mr. Luigi L. Lemoncello.

Oh, and Mr. Lemoncello’s banana shoes? Professor Marvelmous might’ve been the inspiration for those, too!

We all have different gifts and talents. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have just the right teacher at just the right time to help me recognize mine.

It only seemed fitting that young Luigi have that same sort of luck. I think you’ll have fun reading about what Mr. Lemoncello was like before he became MR. LEMONCELLO. And, yes, the new book is filled with Easter eggs that should delight readers of the other five books in the series. (It’s also a good book to read first, to set up the rest of the series).

Oh, and teachers?

Thank you for continuing to inspire kids every day, just like Mrs. Garrett inspired me all those years ago.